Applying our theory to parents and children, this means that a parent does not have the right to aggress against his children, but also that the parent should not have a legal obligation to feed, clothe, or educate his children, since such obligations would entail positive acts coerced upon the parent and depriving the parent of his rights. The parent therefore may not murder or mutilate his child, and the law properly outlaws a parent from doing so. But the parent should have the legal right not to feed the child, i.e., to allow it to die. The law, therefore, may not properly compel the parent to feed a child or to keep it alive.
Thus proclaims Murray Rothbard - one of the two primary architects of Austrian economic theory alongside Ludwig von Mises - in his treatise “The Ethics of Liberty”. The statement should rattle any normal person whose conscience hasn’t been dulled by drinking too deeply of libertarian “ethics”. But you have to give Rothbard credit for his ruthless ideological consistency: he drives his libertarianism to its logical conclusion, without blinking an eye, and in that one statement we can see his libertarianism for the naked obscenity it truly is.
You would think that orthodox Catholics, along with honest men in every Christian tradition, would be repulsed by any philosophy advocating such horrors, and would distance themselves in every way from its proponents. But the economic and political theories of Mises and Rothbard are growing in popularity even among otherwise solid Catholics – Catholics who are, perhaps, so frustrated with the relentless growth of the secular state, so appalled by the erosion of economic liberties, so horrified by the state’s usurpation of authority properly belonging to families and churches and communities, that they look upon Austrian economics as the only thing capable of effectively opposing the new totalitarianism.
But this is a colossal mistake. To borrow George Orwell’s famous adage, “we have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.” Not that Catholic social doctrine is “obvious” to everyone – it must be sought after and studied like anything else, after all – but once studied it is obvious that libertarianism is wholly alien, and even antithetical, to the doctrinal precepts of Christianity as they pertain to “man, economy and state”. This is because Austro-libertarianism is more than just an economic theory: it is what amounts to a total worldview, and like its materialist twin, socialism, is in direct competition with the Catholic Faith.
Enter Christopher Ferrara, whose new book “The Church and the Libertarian: A Defense of the Catholic Church’s Teaching on Man, Economy and State” is not only a devastating refutation of what he terms “Austro-libertarianism” (so as to distinguish from milder forms of libertarianism), but also a comprehensive review of the social doctrine of the Catholic Church.
Ferrara begins by explaining that the historic phenomenon of capitalism, which Austrian theorists laud for its material benefits, is not a creature of laissez faire economic conditions, but is in large measure the result of government confiscations, interventions, and the bestowal of economic advantages upon the wealthy. The only capitalism that has ever existed is an alliance of capitalists with the state – an alliance that continues to this day. Ferrara’s point here is to demonstrate that Austro-libertarianism is an exercise in pure abstraction, not the hard-headed economic realism it pretends to be.
As with most theological and philosophical errors, Austrianism goes wrong with a false understanding of human nature and purpose. Ferrara documents the anti-Christian views of Mises and Rothbard, both agnostic Jews, and their reflexive hostility to the Church and her influence. Their philosophy does not, therefore, consider man in light of his fall from divine grace, his duties toward God and neighbor, his ability to pursue holiness in a state of sanctifying grace, or the supreme importance of his eternal destiny. Instead, it considers man as primarily an amoral, hedonistic, comfort-seeking creature motivated by pure utility – or at least assumes that nothing else matters when it comes to “the ethics of liberty”.
And yet, this calculated indifference to moral and spiritual considerations in the marketplace is a fatal contradiction, as the Austrians cannot help but create an alternate morality in order to sustain their system. What is this alternate morality? The person, first of all, is conceived as “property” which is “self-owned”. The first precept of Austro-libertarianism is therefore “the absolute property right of each individual in his own person”. The second is like unto it: “the absolute right in material property of the person who first finds an unused material resource and then in some way occupies or transforms that resource by the use of his personal energy”. No man – and therefore, no government – may compel another man to do anything against his own will, or forcibly limit the use of the property in his possession, except to curb the violation of the aforementioned rights by one man against another. What is this but a new moral code? For Austro-libertarians, these precepts are virtually dogma.
This false understanding of man leads inexorably to a false understanding of the state. If man has no purpose higher than to seek his own satisfaction, then the state has no higher purpose than to facilitate man’s striving to fulfill his desires. For the Austro-libertarian, that means removing all obstacles to human action that do not violate the absolute sovereignty of every man’s person and property. However, Austro-libertarian anthropology can support other theories of the state which would horrify its contemporary enthusiasts: socialism, for example. Why shouldn’t the state circumvent the striving for human satisfaction and simply provide it? After all, that is the end-game: the satisfaction of human desires. The state might as well eliminate the economic disadvantages suffered by most people and get on with the business of satisfying those desires for everyone. Hence the propagation of Austrian ideas lends itself to the advance of socialism, for most people will adopt the Austrians' seductive anthropology - an easy sell that is already held by the majority - while leaving off their alternative (and completely arbitrary) “morality”.
Central to the Austrian error is the notion that market outcomes, if the market is left to itself (a practical impossibility in any case), are always “just” by definition. Therefore things like price gouging during shortages and emergencies, or unjust wages and exploitation of labor, simply do not exist in a “free market”. But the magisterium of the Catholic Church teaches explicitly, forcefully and authoritatively that market outcomes are not inherently just apart from other moral considerations, and this book provides a gold mine of references for the straying or doubting Catholic.
Ferrara’s analysis of Wal-Mart’s notorious employment practices illustrates vividly how market outcomes can be gravely unjust:
In 2009, despite the worldwide economic debacle we are still experiencing, Wal-Mart’s annual net sales rose 7.2% to $405 billion, with foreign sales of $100 billion ‘for the first time’. The company turned an annual pre-tax profit of more than $13 billion and ended the year ‘with strong free cash flow of $14.1 billion, an increase over last year  of almost 21 percent’, while returning ‘$11.5 billion to shareholders through dividends and share repurchase this fiscal year, a level of return that is 58 percent higher than last year’.
Despite Wal-Mart’s immense success for its shareholders, the average full-time Wal-Mart ‘sales associate’ earns $10.84 per hour, for an annual salary of $19,165, which is below the federal poverty level for a family of four, while in 2009 Wal-Mart’s former CEO Lee Scott earned a total compensation of $29.7 million – a staggering 1,551 times the salary of a ‘sales associate’. Various members of the Walton clan have reaped scores of billions in the form of rising share prices, which continue to rise in the midst of the economic crisis, with the result that the Walton clan collectively is worth about $84 billion.
Yet 700,000 Wal-Mart employees have no medical coverage, and the rest must pay 20% of their already meager wages for limited coverage by way of payroll deduction, even though a small fraction of the Walton family’s wealth could permanently fund a self-insured, non-taxable medical plan for all 1.4 million of Wal-Mart’s American employees.
In a perfect example of how the ‘free’ market uses government to ‘externalize’ its operating costs so that it can scrimp on employee compensation, Scott declared that Wal-Mart employees without medical coverage should consider public assistance: ‘In some of our states, the public program may actually be a better value – with relatively high income limits to qualify, and low premiums’. Here we see how big business actually encourages the growth of the ‘nanny state’ Austrians so loudly deplore …
Once Ferrara is through prosecuting his case against Austrian theory, drawing heavily from the writings of its founders and contemporary exponents, he goes on to present the Catholic vision for a just economic, political and social order – not as an abstraction, but as practical doctrine with a practical history. A return to legitimate authority, to political and economic subsidiarity, to a system of professional guilds, and to the widespread ownership of productive capital must be the cornerstones of renewal. Understanding that a popular movement towards this end is a remote prospect at this point, Ferrara also provides a helpful summary of “practical distributism” that may be implemented by families and individuals on a personal level:
1) Create your own job.
2) If you cannot create your own job, join with others to create a cooperative or
3) If you must work for a company, persuade it to allow you to telecommute.
4) Try to convert part-time employment for wages into a part-time consultancy.
5) Instead of putting all your eggs in one employment basket, ‘keep the day job’ while seeking to create multiple income streams using your own equipment and working with family members in home-based activities, preparing for the day when you can leave the corporate job behind.
6) Bank with a credit union.
7) Avoid corporation debt (borrow from credit unions); tear up your credit cards.
8) Patronize locally-owned stores, microenterprises, cooperatives, and worker-owned businesses.
9) Avoid sweatshop clothing and products.
10) Grow some of your own food.
11) Patronize a farmers’ market, or purchase food directly from farmers/producers.
12) Home school.
13) Avoid commoditized entertainment in favor entertainment such as local baseball, picnics, dances, social events, quilting bees, fairs, etc.
14) Start moving towards alternative, non-centrally generated power.
15) Shop at flea-markets, swap meets and garage sales.
16) Kill your TV, or at least grievously wound it (apologies for the violent language). If you have a TV, don't watch it - study it.
17) Make your own bread. Eat real food, and avoid like the plague the ersatz, mass-produced capitalist food that has ruined the health of millions, including children.
18) Bring forth life abundantly, trusting in God.
19) Breast-feed your babies.
20) Practice the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity, and the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. The crisis of our civilization is a crisis in virtue.
For my part, while I completely agree with Ferrara’s critique of Austro-libertarianism in light of Catholic social doctrine, I am not sold on the viability of distributism as a radical, comprehensive solution. Rather, I think it is more a matter of Christianizing our existing system while incorporating, as much as possible and with minimal disruption, the best insights of distributism. To a significant extent we are stuck with mega-corporations and "factory farms", and while we might easily do without some of them, others are necessary for the economic health of the country. Employee ownership is a good idea in some cases but not, perhaps, absolutely necessary in all cases. Although we raise much of our own food on our northern California ranch, I have thus far been unable to work up a distributist-level disgust for “mass produced capitalist food” as such. While I am in favor of household energy independence, whenever practical, there is just no possibility of 300 million Americans, their workplaces, hospitals, businesses, and municipalities going “off the grid” apart from a national calamity the scale of which is too horrible to contemplate. I concede that I may have read too much Belloc, Chesterton and McNabb and not enough of those distributist writers who address the contemporary economic scene – a defect I am trying to remedy.
This brief review of Christopher Ferrara’s “The Church and the Libertarian” does not begin to do it justice. It is my sincere hope that this book will be read widely and carefully by Christians of every tradition who are concerned with economic questions, and who may not be aware of the origins and implications of the ideas they presently hold. A word of caution to those unfamiliar with this author: he’s a brilliant polemicist, and while there is a place for strong polemical argument, I think he’s overly polemical in places where it does more harm than good. It would be a shame if that habit were so off-putting that one dismisses the substance of this otherwise indispensable work.